Where village chiefs are also judges

Many people are fleeing from South Sudan. But Martina Santschi, a social anthropologist at Swisspeace, often travels there to do her research – despite all the dangers involved. She wants to find out how the new state can make use of existing social structures.

(From "Horizons" no. 108 March 2016)​​​

"Everyone asks about safety. And yet at the beginning, it was the dry season that I found most deadly – when the streams have dried out, all the trees are stretching their withered branches into the heavens and the ground is riven with gaping wounds. The first time I experienced it, I asked myself: can I really cope with this for a long period of time? I grew up on a farm in a village by Lake Thun. I love green, luscious meadows. But on the other hand, I did soon notice similarities between the Bernese Oberland and South Sudan. For example, cows are very important to my family. And cattle-breeding is also very important in my place of research. The societal significance of the cow plays a role in my scholarly work.

"And yet I'm not actually looking into the dairy industry or cattle-breeding. I'm investigating how existing social structures can interact with the creation of statehood in a new nation, South Sudan, which only became independent on 9 July 2011. It is the youngest country in Africa. I visited South Sudan for the first time in 2007 as part of my doctoral research in social anthropology at the University of Bern. It was still part of the Sudan back then. I've since been back repeatedly. I twice spent eight months in South Sudan to do research for my doctorate. For other projects, I go back for shorter periods of time. I'm especially interested in traditional authorities, local governance and arbitration courts.

Establishing harmony

"Arbitration courts settle concrete disputes – and this is where cows come into it. It often happens that people quarrel over dowries. 'You still owe me a cow for my daughter' is a typical accusation you hear from the father of the bride. Those affected then hand in a complaint to the village chief, who calls up other members of the court. Witnesses are questioned and everyone is allowed to take part in the discussion. It can take several hours. I find it very impressive, because it's not the village chief who makes the decision at the end. It's more about establishing harmony, about finding a compromise. It's rare that anyone is locked up after committing an offence, except in the case of serious crime such as murder. It's interesting as a researcher to observe how, despite years of civil war, systems of governance and arbitration procedures have continued to function in spaces that otherwise seem to be a legal vacuum and are supposedly devoid of state authority.

Risk factors in uniform

"I carried out interviews in South Sudan, accompanied by an interpreter. I had a satellite phone with me in case of emergency. To be sure, South Sudan is a conflict region – but I'm not reckless. I make sure I'm well-informed before I travel anywhere. When I'm in towns, I spend my nights in secure accommodation. Out in the countryside there's a greater degree of social control, and I can sometimes set up my tent or live in simple guest houses. I've been in a critical situation perhaps two or three times. Armed men in uniform can be unpredictable, and that's a risk factor. And on one occasion I came down with malaria despite having taken prophylactic medication.

"What's important is being able to place trust in my contacts and my interpreter. Mareng Chuor translated for me during my first field trip. I lived with his family. We soon broke the ice – one morning, my host family noticed that I was wearing one black sock and one blue sock. We laughed out loud, and Mareng said: 'It's nice to see you're only human too'.

And what's the result of my research? Perhaps the realisation that there are local institutions that function very well, and that play an important role in local governance. External bodies like the UN agencies and NGOs often focus on laws at the national level, paying less attention to their concrete implementation and the impact they have. At first glance, passing a new land law might seem a sensible thing. But in practice, this can prove disadvantageous to poor people who can't afford the official registration fees. It can mean they lose their land".

Recorded by Christian Weber.